May 1816: Jane Austen is feeling unwell, with an uneasy stomach, constant fatigue, rashes, fevers and aches. She attributes her poor condition to the stress of family burdens, which even the drafting of her latest manuscript—about a baronet's daughter nursing a broken heart for a daring naval captain—cannot alleviate. Her apothecary recommends a trial of the curative waters at Cheltenham Spa, in Gloucestershire. Jane decides to use some of the profits earned from her last novel, Emma, and treat herself to a period of rest and reflection at the spa, in the company of her sister, Cassandra.
Cheltenham Spa hardly turns out to be the relaxing sojourn Jane and Cassandra envisaged, however. It is immediately obvious that other boarders at the guest house where the Misses Austen are staying have come to Cheltenham with stresses of their own—some of them deadly. But perhaps with Jane’s interference a terrible crime might be prevented. Set during the Year without a Summer, when the eruption of Mount Tambora in the South Pacific caused a volcanic winter that shrouded the entire planet for sixteen months, this fourteenth installment in Stephanie Barron’s critically acclaimed series brings a forgotten moment of Regency history to life.
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Consulting the Apothecary
Monday, 20th May, 1816
I closed the door of Mr. Curtis’s apothecary shop behind me and glanced along the Alton High Street in search of my niece Cassie’s slight figure. I found her instantly, gloved hand swinging from Fanny’s elegant one, as the two picked their way through the fresh puddles that dotted the paving. Cassie, at seven years the eldest of my brother Charles’s three motherless girls, gloried in the undivided attention of her fashionable and much-older cousin, and her cheeks were flushed with pleasure. The young woman by her side appeared unconscious of the child’s admiration—having such a number of younger brothers and sisters, Fanny is well accustomed to adoration. At three-and-twenty, she retains her freshness of countenance, aligned with a genius for millinery, that must beguile every eye. A number of heads turned to follow the two bright countenances along the country-town street; but even in London, I suspect, Fanny would not pass unnoticed.
“She has been spoiling the child again,” my sister Cassandra observed indulgently; and indeed, Cassie clutched in her free hand a twisted bit of brown paper fresh from the local confectioner’s. A few boiled sweets, perhaps, purchased with the pennies Fanny had pressed into her palm while The Aunts, as both girls call us, conducted our business with Mr. Curtis. Harmless enough; the Lord knows that treats come only rarely in poor Cassie’s way. With my brother Charles presently at sea, his daughters have been consigned to the care of his late wife’s sister in London. I am sure that Miss Palmer is a very good sort of woman, who loves Charles’s children as her own; but her serviceable charms cannot equal in Cassie’s estimation the superior claims of Miss Fanny Austen Knight, of Godmersham Park in Kent—handsome, clever, and rich—who saunters with such ease down Alton’s modest streets, a frivolous silk parasol dangling from her hand.
Fanny and her father, my brother Edward, have been visiting us at Chawton Cottage this past fortnight, and Cassie this past month; a happy coincidence that provided both my nieces with interest and amusement, despite the fifteen years’ difference in their ages.
“You have been prompt in your consultation,” Fanny observed, as she came up with us on the High. “I did not think to meet you for another quarter-hour at least.”
“Mr. Curtis’s opinions were succinct,” I replied. “He looked at me—and into me, by way of a lanthorn beam directed down my throat—and pronounced me in want only of a period of rest and refreshment.”
I spoke with determined cheerfulness, for in all truth I have not been very stout of late, and at my sister Cassandra’s urging had at last sought the advice of the Alton apothecary. Lassitude, a want of spirits, and a persistent pain in my back dogged me throughout the winter months. The spring has been wretched and stillborn, with incessant rain, but we look forward to a June of warmth and sun—and with the summer months, an improvement in my animation and health. Mr. Curtis has a yet more active recommendation; but of this, I said nothing to my nieces. My intelligence would keep until we achieved our home in Chawton.
“Rest and refreshment!” Fanny exclaimed darkly. “And how are you likely to obtain either, pray, with all the world pulling up at your door? I shall inform Papa that we may certainly not delay our departure beyond Wednesday.”
“Wednesday!” Cassie cried out in disappointment. “When we were to walk to the fair on Alton Green to meet Cousin Caroline! She was to have shown me her doll, and permitted me to change its clothes. It is too bad, Fanny!”
“Hush, child,” Cassandra said in mild reproof. “You would not be wishing Fanny to think that the unhappiness of a treat denied, is heavier than the pain of parting with her!”
Cassie flushed, looked all her mortification, and hung her head.
Fanny squeezed the little girl’s hand. “The fair begins tomorrow. I shall certainly find occasion to walk with you in the morning, instead of Wednesday.” Then, glancing at me, she continued, “It is scandalous how all your brothers presume upon the good nature of Chawton Cottage, Aunt. One might suppose you were running a boardinghouse explicitly for the care of elderly gentlemen, tossed and wracked by sudden ill-fortune!”
I smiled, for Fanny spoke with a cajoling good humour; but in truth her jest was not far off the mark. Since the first of the year, my brothers have met with so many crushing blows that the Austen family appears set apart by Providence for a collective trial of faith.
First, Henry’s banks in London and Hampshire were ruined—the result of a plunge in receipts following the defeat of Buonaparte at Waterloo. With the Peace has come a bitter decline in the Kingdom’s economy, and the bankruptcies of the Great are strewn everywhere in the newspapers. Henry was obliged to give up his offices in Henrietta Street, near Covent Garden, and his home at Hans Place—his worldly goods sold at auction—the proceeds being turned over to his creditors.
The month of March saw Henry arrived at our cottage door, with no home or coin to his name; and having welcomed all of us so generously over the years in each of his houses, he could expect nothing less in return. At the advanced age of four-and-forty, he determined to take Divine Orders—and worked up a fair proficiency in schoolboy Greek against the event. Having travelled in April to Winchester to present his catechism, however, my brother was disappointed to pass through the archbishop’s hands without the slightest interrogation. It seems the archbishop’s Greek is even worse than Henry’s.
This will be the fourth or fifth career our quicksilver brother has chosen; I cannot pretend to number his many roles over the course of his life; but a clergyman’s lot bids fair to be as happy a choice as any. It must be disinterested, at least. Henry means to fill the office of curate here in Chawton—a post in Edward’s gift. He will earn a mere fifty-two guineas per annum. How far my brother has strayed from his days among the Great at White’s Club and Carlton House!
“Will your papa be ready to journey into Kent so soon as Wednesday?” I enquired of Fanny as our small party turned back along the High in the direction of the post office. This was always our final errand before the mile of exertion that lay between Alton and Chawton village.
“I believe he will.” Fanny lent me the support of her arm, and I was grateful to accept. “His business was concluded some days since.”
Her papa’s business, as she called it, had been tiresome, complex, and unremittingly lowering, being financial in nature. Edward is come into Hampshire to meet with his solicitor, young Mr. Trimmer. One could hardly discover from Fanny’s clear-eyed looks that the Austen Knights had been burdened with acute anxiety these several months; tho’ I am certain she is wholly aware of her father’s obligations and cares. It must be Fanny’s concern to show an unruffled front to the world.
My Uncle Leigh-Perrot and my brother Edward together had pledged some thirty thousand pounds (!) in surety against the loans made by Henry’s bank—an enormous sum, now irrevocably lost. My brothers Frank and James were similarly stripped of lesser investments, equally vital to each. Even I was so unfortunate as to lose £13.7s.0d. of my earnings from Mansfield Park—entrusted to my account in the Henrietta Street branch. My sick horror at the extent of our collective misfortune is compounded by the fact that Frank, James, and Henry are obliged now to retrench and economise. They must therefore suspend their annual monetary gifts to my mother’s household. Each was in the habit of contributing fifty pounds per annum for the Austen ladies’ maintenance, and the want of funds must be felt by all four of us who live so simply beneath the cottage roof.
Edward has assured us his support shall be unchanged; but as if all this were not enough, the detestable Hintons—our neighbours at Chawton Lodge—persist in their lawsuit against my brother’s Hampshire estates. They have wearied Edward two years already with their dark hints, writs, and indignation—and the affair does not appear any closer to settlement.
As though my mental powers had conjured him, a rough-hewn fellow in brown serge leggings swung through the broad door of the brewery as we came abreast of its odorous yard. A carved pipe stem was clenched between his teeth. Removing this with one hand and doffing his cap with the other, he inclined his head.
“Miss Austen,” he said to Cassandra. His small dark eyes ignored me to rove instead over Fanny’s neat figure. “And Miss Fanny Austen.”
“It is Miss Knight, sir,” Fanny said quietly—the name she adopted four years ago.
He grinned with cheeky insolence. “Not for much longer, I daresay.”
We passed on without another word, but I am sure I was not the only one of our party to feel Mr. James Hinton-Baverstock’s gaze boring into my back. The brewer is a clever and rather scampish fellow, nephew to the very Hintons whose desire for ill-got wealth plagues my brother. They, along with their cousins the Dusautoys—respectable tradesmen who own the upholsterers’ shop further up the High—claim descent from the Knights of Chawton; and together they allege that poor Edward has conspired to rob them of their rightful inheritance. They beg the courts to turn over all Edward’s Hampshire holdings, including Chawton Cottage, to themselves. This must be mere groundless Devilry, to be sure, as Edward’s adoptive patron, Sir Thomas Knight, long ago broke his family entail in my brother’s favour. But the Law may yet strike a whimsical justice, and strip Edward of two-thirds of his fortune, leaving only his estate in Kent—an unspeakable loss after Henry’s bankruptcy. Needless to say, the prospect of giving up our cottage to the Hintons—or worse yet, being obliged to pay them rent—must make us uneasy, tho’ we would not speak of it before Fanny for the world.
“May I fetch the mail?” Cassie begged, her hands clasped, “by myself? While the rest of you wait here?”
“If you promise faithfully not to read any of it before us.” Cassandra attempted to look severe.
“Upon my honour, Aunt, I should not dream of doing so.”
Fanny opened her reticule. “Pray, Cassie, place these letters in the outgoing bag.” She handed three folded and sealed sheets of hot-pressed paper to her young cousin. “And here are some coins, against the postage, for any letters you receive from the postmistress.”
“You cannot be franking our mail, Fanny,” I scolded, as Cassie hurried off on her errand.
“Why not? I derive so much amusement from it; your correspondents are invariably droll.”
We were in the habit of reading our letters aloud by the fire after supper. The missives from Edward’s boys at Winchester were particularly delightful; those from brother James’s wife, Mary, amusing in their self-absorption.
Cassie thrust herself back through the post office door in an excess of excitement. “Fanny! Aunts! Only think—there are two letters from Papa! I knew his fist as soon as ever I saw it!”
“His handwriting, Cassie,” my sister corrected, but I was already sorting the letters in search of Charles’s. These would not keep until we reached the cottage; poor Cassie was hopping on one foot to know what her papa had written—whether he was well—if he should be granted leave to be at home before the summer was ended . . .
From the multiple directions scribbled and marked out on the cover of Charles’s first letter, it had passed through the hands of too many captains on the Mediterranean Station before reaching England. The second bore a more recent date, and had been sent out from Gibraltar. It was not uncommon for correspondence to be held in suspense, only to arrive in a heap; such are the vagaries of the Royal Navy. I broke the seal of the older missive and glanced at the date.
“But he wrote this in February!” I quickly skimmed the page, which was covered and then crossed again in Charles’s fine, flowing script. “Your papa is very well, Cassie. He has been so far as Egypt! And quit his ship in Alexandria to see the ancient city, where he purchased some views of the port in watercolours, which he means to show you once he is come home. Here is something exciting . . . Papa has chased a party of desperate pirates along the coast of North Africa . . . Only think if they should have a chest filled with treasure aboard!”
I continued my perusal silently, absorbed in my particular little brother’s words. Then of a sudden I gasped, and placed my fingers to my lips.
“Jane?” Cassandra touched my arm.
“Aunt?” Fanny murmured.
I glanced down at Cassie’s small face, which had flushed red, then paled. Wordlessly, I opened Charles’s second letter and devoured the intelligence. Then I drew breath and attempted a smile. “It is nothing, truly—only what might happen to any captain in the Royal Navy! Your papa’s ship, Cassie, was wrecked off the coast of Smyrna—nearly two months ago.”
The child gave a sharp cry. Fanny gathered her close.
“But Papa and his crew are safe and well in Gibraltar,” I assured them. “Indeed, Charles is even now en route to London. If we are very fortunate, we may have him with us in a matter of weeks!”